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Thursday, April 16, 2009


The wind is blusterous and cold, blowing palm trees, my hair, everything, straight out like windsocks, all pointing east. It is spring, but it feels colder than winter, as spring often does. Wacky weather and strange things tend to happen this time of year.

Sheila visited me while I was doing my toilet yesterday. She bustled into the ladies room like she always does, throwing her arms around me. "There you are! I've been looking everywhere for you! Where've you been?"

"I've been here."

"No you haven't. I've been looking everywhere for you. Where've you been?"

"Sheila, I have been here. I am always here. I always sleep out here."

"No-o-o-o." Sheila drew out the o so that no sounded more like new. "Where were you?"

Sheila does not believe the truth, so I pondered telling a grand lie before choosing the best strategy: I stop responding to the questions. I had to brush my teeth and gargle, anyway, which gave her the chance to tell me she was high.

The occasion was that her boyfriend, Brian, went to jail. Brian is a big man, cheerful, funny, loving. Except when he is drunk, and then he hits people who are not showing him the love back. Sheila is a cute, small-built blonde who likes to have fun. Otherwise, she is depressed and gets angry for no apparent reason. She can make one up.

Sheila was feeling lonely. She mentioned the wedding she and Brian were planning. "Yeah," I said, "if he doesn't kill somebody and go to prison." Now that might have been a joke were it not Brian we were discussing. Sheila suggested I get in her car, and we could drive around, find something to do. I begged out. I had a long list of chores for my day off.

Why alcoholics imagine anyone wants to ride in a car with them puzzles me. Sheila and Brian would usually offer to take me somewhere with them while they were not only drunk, but arguing. But that was last summer, when I was new to homelessness. Still, I am not one to risk my life for friendship.

I grew fond of Sheila and Brian. They were close to normal, except for the drinking. She drove a new Audi and wore nice clothing. So did Brian. They were both used to working and having money. I drove into the parking lot next to the restroom one summer day and happened to take the parking space next to theirs. They had the windows down in the Audi, the better to enjoy the fresh air off the Bay.

They spoke to me and introduced themselves, finally getting around to asking if I were homeless. They had seen me around the washroom at the Yacht Club. It was my first close encounter with other homeless people, and it went a long way to easing the estrangement I felt. To this day, I am grateful for Sheila and Brian's presence in my life then. Sheila finally received a long-awaited settlement from a former employer and went on to find a house to rent.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" Sheila's words encompassed the space we were standing in and were meant to ding every corner of my life, with which, fortunate for me, she had no familiarity. Still, I did not want to hear aspersions cast on my truck, my favorite washroom, the Yacht Club parking lot.

"Look at me . . . I have a place to live! If I can do it, you can do it!" Sheila meant well with the motivational, strong talk.

Finished gargling, I turned to speak to Sheila. I had planned to change the subject, but she wasn't there. I looked around, stepped out of the washroom. Her car was gone. That is the way of many people I have met who are, or have been, homeless. Here. Gone.

I can't say when I might see Sheila again. The same with Bob, for example. If I look for him, I can't find him. He finds me. The day before Sheila's appearance, I was just getting out of my truck to do my morning ritual when Bob showed up on his bicycle.

"Hey, Bob! Where's the truck?"

"Oh, they took my truck," he said slowly, resigned, with his usual composure. Having one's vehicle taken is quite serious for the homeless. It takes homelessness to a deeper, lower level. It means sleeping outdoors and makes the logistics for working and making money next to impossible. It spells the end of life as we know it.


"I got a DUI."

"Oh." I was let down. I was ready to defend Bob, but there is no defending anyone who is a serious risk to others. Still, it was odd because, while Bob certainly drinks, he does not drink and drive. He knows better.

"Where are you sleeping?"

Bob must have told me where he was sleeping, but I didn't quite hear it. The idea of Bob sleeping outdoors made me feel sad, and my mind was fogging over.

"How are you staying warm?"

"Oh, I'm warm enough. I have a blanket . . ." Bob's voice trailed off in my mind. I had stopped listening. I had nowhere to go with what Bob was telling me. Losing the truck would mean he was over the edge. No way up from there.

"Oh, I went to the doctor, too," Bob said in his offhand style. "I have cancer."

Bob went on, but we might as well have been under water. He pulled a paper out of his jacket and handed it to me --- a medical report with a short, intimidating list: leukemia, hepatitis, impaired immune system.

Bob also had a doctor's Rx that prescribed a daily bath and staying away from shelters to minimize exposure to cold or flu. Some half-buried part of me, now lying on the bottom of the Bay, wanted to scream with laughter about the daily bath. I wondered how this doctor imagined Bob would do that, and I wanted to tease Bob about it; but I could not resurrect my humor.

I felt very tired all of a sudden and turned the topic to lighten things up.

"It's a good thing you had your bike."

"Oh, you haven't seen this one. This one's new." Bob paused here. "I stole it."

Bob doesn't steal, either, so the bike was a matter of conscience for him. "I can't handle a bike now without a lot of gears. I get too tired. This is a $700 bike. I figure if the guy can afford this, he can afford another one."

I offered some forgiveness, which I knew Bob would appreciate.

"I'll send up a prayer for the person whose bike you took, Bob. Maybe he didn't even miss it. Maybe he forgot he had a bike like that."

"Yeah . . . well, I needed it."

The conversation dwindled to a chat, and I excused myself for work.

The wind was cold and carrying sand. There were high clouds skittering overhead. I sat back and started up the truck. Driving along South Shores, the view is a lonely desert, palms trees here and there. I thought, and quite a departure from the past few days, what a silly word, daffodil. Once upon a time, a girl might be named Lily, Iris, Rose, Daisy, but never Daffodil. The Elizabethans called the flower, daffodilly or daffodowndill. Sometimes primrose peereless.

I could imagine being a Primrose Peereless, a new companion to Avenger, Jonathan Steed, off to save the world from diabolical schemers.

A scene came to mind just then. As a child, I had often seen daffodils sprung up from the frosty ground, sometimes in snow. They were always in bloom at Easter, and along the trip to church, both sides of the road would be strewn with their bobbing, bright, yellow heads, the only sunshine amid a gray and white landscape.

The magical, numinous sight of the daffodils of my memory lifted my heart. That silly word alone was a relief. There are so many questions for which I have no answers. I am coming to think there are no questions: just things that happen. In place of answers, this time, I found wonder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hang the Bankers!

"Capitalism isn't working!" was only one of the cries that went up from crowds in the streets this morning in London where the G-20 nations are holding their world economic summit. I especially liked, "Hang the bankers!" I was amused, but it really isn't funny.

It is a marvel that so many of us managed to survive the past thirty years, that is, since the Reagan Revolution. Any pay raises at work were nullified by a raise in taxes on middle-to-lower income earners, as well as company decisions to drop medical benefits and even the smallest perk, such as a paid, hour lunchtime.

Hardly anyone remembers the good old days when work was a 9-to-5 and there was an entire hour for lunch. Now, work starts at 8:30 a.m. to offset a half-hour, unpaid lunchtime, and business still closes at 5 p.m. so that employees get in a full eight hours. To wit, we spent more time at work making less money.

Meanwhile, the cost of living never stopped going up; and the credit card industry was filling in the gaps. We were made poorer as we just could not keep up unless we used credit to pay, especially medical bills. And then the credit card companies began to raise fees and add fees, especially late fees; and there was nowhere to go with a complaint. By the time the credit card industry got competitive, most of us were already awash in debt. I remember paying off several credit card balances with other credit cards, paying off debt with another debt.

No, I did not know how that made sense, but I was not a business person. I remember one financial expert claiming years ago that our financial system was far sturdier and more resilient than it was before the Great Depression, that there were mechanisms, some sort of interdependence among financial institutions, that made it bust-proof. I had no idea what he meant, but it was also the era of the then-new, high-yield debt instruments, a.k.a junk bonds, created by financial wunderkind, Michael Milken.

Because of Reagan-era deregulation, banks could issue credit and operate as investment banking houses. Real estate firms, insurance, and title companies could behave like banks. Every and all sorts of companies could issue credit cards. Venerable companies like General Electric became better known for their financial services. Prudential Insurance became Pru-Bache. What monies the insurance companies did not want to pay in claims enriched their investment portfolios.

Many homeowners were making their mortgage payments to a different institution every three or four months, many removes from the institution that originally held the paper. Their mortgage had been swapped, that is, bundled up with other mortgages, some good, some not, and sold like a security to another banking firm. Except that someone made money off someone else's debt, no one knows what that really means, especially, now, with the trouble we are in.

The cost of insurance kept rising, too, but it came to seem more like protection money. There were always reasons why the insurance companies, behaving more like the Mob, did not want to pay out; and with each auto accident or trip to the hospital, rates went up. So despite insurance, one could not have an accident or get ill. It was simple usury and certainly racketeering, and where insurance was involved with the State, collusion.

Tuition went up for both public and private schools, at the same time there was less financial aid, unless one wanted to take out a loan. Then Congress got angry at those people who were not paying back their loans, whom they claimed were all doctors and lawyers. Now you could default on your student loan, but the debt would never go away: it would alway have a spot on your credit report. And it would die when you do, and that part is thanks to President Clinton. Otherwise, your children's children would have been reaping sour grapes from the U.S. Department of Education.

Still, I lived a prosperous life. I had a new car, a nice house, clothing, jewelry. And a mountain of debt, which did not seem to matter. It was the American way.

Of course, I could never stop working. Or juggling.

These days, I just have a lot less to juggle. While all that credit was floated over the past thirty years, social services of every kind were cut. Slashed, really. What that means for me now is that I get any public aid in piecemeal fashion. If I have food stamps, I get less of something else. If I have more unemployment or disability monies, I get less food stamps. The aid is not cumulative in a way that a person could reach financial stability and move on and up. One merely teeters.

But, I am resourceful and in good health. And I do not really want to hang the bankers. Honestly, if swapping nothing is considered to be capital, I don't know whether capitalism works or not. I'm not sure we were even practicing capitalism, as such. I do like what money buys and would be woefully unhappy in a Marxist state where there were no department stores where I could try on new dresses, shoes, and jewelry, no matter that I could not afford them, and no array of cosmetics and make-up counters.

That sounds like sheer frivolity, but we are going to need to commit simple acts of levity to keep our heads up and to feel like staying above ground.